People 3 minutes 29 January 2024

Jwala’s Chef Ramesh Thangaraj Carves His Own Path as Malaysia's Opening of the Year Inaugural Winner

We find out how Jwala’s head chef, Ramesh Thangaraj, strikes the balance between cultural heritage and creativity.

In a landmark move, the MICHELIN Guide Kuala Lumpur & Penang introduced the "Opening of the Year" award this year. Presented by UOB Malaysia, this coveted recognition is given to a chef, host, or restaurant manager whose exceptional efforts have led to the successful launch of a dining venue in the past 12 months. The award's primary goal is to celebrate establishments with a creative dégustation concept and a culinary approach that leaves an impact on the local gastronomic scene.

UOB Malaysia takes pride in honourable values such as doing what is right, building for the future, working as one, and taking further steps to achieve long-term success — these qualities are easily identifiable in the MICHELIN Guide Opening of the Year awardee, who has not only displayed his or her hardworking efforts in the launching of a new restaurant, but also demonstrating promise in the years to come.

It comes as no surprise that Ramesh Thangaraj, the visionary behind Jwala in Kuala Lumpur, stands as the inaugural winner of this award. Since opening their doors in January 2023, Jwala has swiftly positioned themselves as the go-to destination for forward-thinking Indian cuisine. But what sets Jwala apart from the rest? We talk to Thangaraj as he discusses the inspiration behind Jwala, his culinary principles, and what we can expect from him in the future.

Jwala Kuala Lumpur's Restaurant Interiors
Jwala Kuala Lumpur's Restaurant Interiors

The Intersection of Tradition and Innovation

"Jwala is to be more than just a restaurant; it's a culinary narrative. This is what the team and I aspire to create every day," reveals Thangaraj.

Thangaraj’s vision for Jwala is crystal-clear. From custom-made copper tandoori ovens, to their modern take on Indian cuisine, Jwala is a story about how one can break new ground without sacrificing heritage. "The conceptualisation involved a deep-dive into cultural roots and culinary techniques of the Indian subcontinent, ensuring every element resonates with our vision,” he shares.

“Jwala is all about creating a space where tradition and innovation harmonise.”

A Culinary Journey Through Mughal Cuisine

Jwala's culinary inspiration draws heavily from Mughal cuisine, originating from the Indian subcontinent during the Mughal Empire.

"The Mughals, of Turko-Mongol descent, introduced rich and flavourful dishes, incorporating spices, herbs, and diverse cooking techniques. This fusion of culinary influences resulted in the development of a distinctive Mughlai cuisine known for its aromatic gravies, kebabs, biryanis, and use of ingredients like saffron and dried fruits,” he says.

“Jwala is a place where culinary artistry meets cultural richness.”

Jwala, meaning "volcano" or "flame" in Sanskrit, hints at the restaurant's specialty dishes. The essence of their culinary artistry is rooted in the intense heat generated through traditional tandoori cooking methods. Marinated meats, vegetables, or bread are meticulously skewered and cooked at elevated temperatures within the tandoor. The marinade, a harmonious blend of yogurt and spices, imparts a distinctive flavour and vibrant reddish hue to the dishes.

“The tandoor's intense heat results in a unique smoky flavour and a characteristic char on the food,” Thangaraj explains.

Hamachi Collar
Hamachi Collar

A New Approach to Tandoori

Beyond the classic tandoori repertoire featuring chicken and lamb chops, Thangaraj utilises other ingredients to distinguish Jwala from their contemporaries. One noteworthy example is the char-grilled hamachi collar, marinated with pickled spices and yuzu, showcasing the chef's unconventional approach to tandoori. And, instead of the usual naan to accompany these dishes, one can opt for their renowned tandoori croissant — something that's unlikely to find in any other Indian restaurant in the city.

Jwala’s integration of old and new lies not only in their offerings, but also in how they prepare their food. The char-grilled dishes, a hallmark of Jwala's menu, undergo a unique cooking process in custom-made copper tandoors, specially imported from Delhi. Adding to the distinctive flavour profile is the infusion of smokiness, a touch achieved through the use of Sarawak mangrove wood charcoal.

Ramesh Thangaraj Opening of the Year Awardee MICHELIN Guide.jpg

An Unconventional Path and Leadership Philosophy

Thangaraj's idiosyncratic culinary outlook can be traced back to his unconventional path to becoming a chef. Reflecting on his journey, he shares, "I didn't always envision myself as a chef, but my journey in the culinary world started years ago. Before Jwala, I explored diverse roles, gaining valuable experiences that ultimately shaped my approach to food."

In a country where culinary traditions are as diverse as its people, Thangaraj found his dedication to diversity and adaptability helpful in overcoming the challenges present in the city’s culinary landscape.

“Navigating the culinary world in Malaysia presents unique hurdles, including balancing traditional flavors with modern trends, managing diverse cultural influences, and coping with intense competition,” he says. “Additionally, sourcing quality ingredients, maintaining consistency, and meeting customer expectations pose ongoing challenges for culinary professionals in Malaysia.”

L-R: Jwala's Lucknowi Pate and Paneer Kurchan
L-R: Jwala's Lucknowi Pate and Paneer Kurchan

"Adapting to changing food preferences and staying innovative is crucial in this dynamic culinary landscape, but through perseverance, a supportive team, and learning from setbacks, we continue to overcome these challenges and emerge stronger and more resilient," he continues.

From this journey, Thangaraj has gleaned essential lessons — three in particular: the importance of adaptability, the value of a cohesive team, and the need for continuous innovation to stay ahead in the dynamic culinary landscape.

“I believe in empowering my team, fostering creativity, and maintaining a passion for excellence. Being a chef allows me to continually explore and share my culinary vision.”

The Future of Jwala

The pinnacle of Thangaraj's hard work and singular culinary vision culminated last year when he achieved Jwala’s most significant milestone yet — being recognised as Malaysia’s first recipient of the Opening of the Year award, presented by UOB Malaysia.

“Winning the Opening of the Year Award is a tremendous honour. It not only validates our vision for Jwala but also energises the entire team, fostering a commitment to excellence in every aspect of our culinary journey,” he says.

Looking ahead, Thangaraj holds an optimistic view of the continued evolution of Indian cuisine in Malaysia. "Indian cuisine has evolved, and I foresee even more exciting fusion and modern interpretations in the next three to five years, reflecting the rich diversity of both cultures."

In light of these developments, the question arises: How does Jwala plan to capitalise on their success? What's next for the restaurant? Thangaraj shares, “We have exciting expansion plans for Jwala, but it is still a bit early to discuss. In the meantime, we aim to further elevate the culinary experience by offering new dining concepts and exciting seasonal dishes.”

Photos are courtesy of Jwala and The MICHELIN Guide
The MICHELIN Guide Opening of the Year Award 2024 is presented in partnership with UOB Malaysia


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